Carolingian Dynasty

Carolingian Dynasty
   Ruling nearly all of Christian Europe from the eighth to the tenth century, the Carolingians, as they were known from their greatest member, Charles the Great, in Latin Carolus Magnus, known as Charlemagne, established a great empire, presided over an important religious reform, and laid the foundation for many of the cultural and political achievements of later medieval civilization. The Carolingian tradition of coronation and their governmental ideas served as the model for medieval rulers long after the demise of the dynasty and the breakup of the Carolingian Empire had led to the emergence of the medieval kingdoms of France and Germany. Their reign witnessed, too, a great cultural flowering traditionally called the Carolingian Renaissance.
   The dynasty's origins can be traced to the mid-seventh century, when the Austrasian nobles St. Arnulf, bishop of Metz (d. c. 645), and Pippin I of Landen (d. 640) joined together in a marriage alliance. The fortunes of the family came from its control of the office of mayor of the palace (major domus), a reward that Pippin earned after helping the Merovingian king Chlotar II (584-629) overthrow Queen Brunhilde and assume the Frankish throne in 613. Pippin exploited his position and became one of the most powerful figures in the kingdom. Although his fortunes ebbed and flowed as the throne passed between various Merovingian kings, Pippin was able to establish a secure base of power and wealth, and to pass it on to his son Grimoald (d. 657), who succeeded his father as mayor when the latter suddenly died.
   Grimoald's career turned out to be an instructive one for generations to come and a reminder of the vagaries of political power. Grimoald was a popular and ambitious figure, but the family suffered an almost fatal setback as a result of his political ambitions and his effort to replace the reigning Merovingian with his own son. His own success in some ways laid the foundation of his ultimate demise. Shortly after his elevation to power, Grimoald accompanied the Merovingian king ruling Austrasia, Sigebert III (r. 633/634-656), on a military expedition to suppress the revolt of one of the dukes of the kingdom. The campaign was a disaster, and the king survived only because of the actions of Grimoald, who thus was now closer to Sigebert and able to impose his will on the king.
   Grimoald next expanded his own base of power by acquiring territory and, in what was to become good Carolingian fashion, forging alliances with monasteries and their monks. The mayor also persuaded the king to adopt his son as heir because Sigebert was without a son. Sigebert, however, did have a son, Dagobert, who was to be his heir, but who was entrusted to Grimoald at the king's death. Making the best of this opportunity, Grimoald deposed Dagobert, sent him to a monastery in distant Ireland, and placed his own son, Childebert the Adopted, on the throne. Unfortunately for Grimoald, his coup failed. The Merovingian king in Neustria, Clovis II, who may have assisted in the deposition but was surprised by Grimoald's enthronement of his son, invited the mayor and his son to Neustria where he captured and executed them - a most unhappy end for Grimoald and his family.
   The fortunes of the family were revived by Pippin II, of Herstal (r. 687-714). Pippin, the nephew of Grimoald and grandson of Arnulf and Pippin I, recovered the office of mayor. The mayor of Neustria, Ebroin, was most tyrannical and harbored ambitions of unifying the realm under his own authority. His ambition and tyranny brought him enemies, which unsettled the kingdom even more at a time when the Merovingian kings were rapidly losing power. Many Austrasian nobles who had supported Grimoald rallied to Pippin, who united the Frankish kingdom when he defeated Ebroin at the Battle of Tertry in 687. As sole mayor, Pippin ruled in the name of several Merovingian kings, including Theuderic III, Clovis IV, Childebert III, and Dagobert III. He strengthened his family's hold on power by improving relations with the church and gaining control of monasteries. He also enforced royal authority over the various parts of the kingdom and expanded the eastern boundaries of the kingdom. For both his family and the kingdom, Pippin's reign was most beneficial.
   Despite his successes, the kingdom fell into civil strife after Pippin's death. Desirous that her descendants should assume the office of mayor, Pippin's widow, Plectrude, imprisoned Charles Martel (the Hammer; r. 714-741), Pippin's son with his second wife or concubine. But her plans were undermined by a rebellion of Neustrian nobles and Charles's escape from prison. Although suffering setbacks of his own, Charles, the first of his family to be so named, laid claim to his inheritance as mayor, seized much treasure held by Plectrude, and forced her from power.
   Charles Martel's term as mayor brought increasing prestige and power to the family. A ferocious warrior, Charles managed to take control of the kingdom in the 720s when he forced the Neustrians to accept his authority, and he won numerous victories against foreign foes, as his father had done before him. His most important and famous victory took place near Poitiers in 732, when he defeated a Muslim army from Spain. Although more battles were necessary to expel the Muslims from the Frankish kingdom, the Battle of Poitiers confirmed Martel's reputation as a great warrior. The victory was understood by contemporaries as the demonstration of God's favor on the Carolingian mayor.
   Charles's successes were not limited to the military arena, however, because he further strengthened the alliance between his family and the Frankish church. Although he alienated much church land to compensate the nobility and ensure their loyalty, thus seriously weakening the church, Charles supported the church and its missionary activities. He established strong ties with the royal abbey of St. Denis, an important political as well as religious act, because the abbey had long supported the Merovingian dynasty. He promoted the activities of Anglo-Saxon missionaries, including St. Boniface, and received a proposal from Pope Gregory III for an alliance against the Lombards in Italy. So great was Charles's power in the kingdom by the end of his life that he ruled without a Merovingian king from 737 on and, following Frankish royal tradition, divided the succession between his two sons, Pippin III, called Pippin the Short (d. 768) and Carloman (d. 754).
   The new mayors faced much opposition at the outset of their reign. They faced resistance from various sections of the nobility and also from their half-brother, Grifo, who had been granted a number of estates by their father and who desired to rule with his half-brothers. Carloman and Pippin, however, dispossessed Grifo from his legacy and imprisoned him. They also suppressed the dissension they faced and extended their power over Aquitaine and Bavaria. One step they thought necessary to take was to appoint a new Merovingian king, Childeric III, as a means to legitimize their rule and restore confidence in the government among the nobility. At the same time, it was the mayors who held the reigns of government and who asserted their authority over the kingdom. They led military campaigns, supported the activities of Boniface, held councils attended by nobles and bishops to address matters concerning the kingdom and the church, and promoted needed religious and political reform - until Carloman withdrew to a monastery in 747, an action that left Pippin as sole mayor.
   Pippin next took the fateful steps once taken without success by Grimoald. Secure in his power, Pippin sent two trusted and powerful advisors with a letter to the pope, Zachary (r. 741-752), asking if he who had the power or he who had the title should be king. Zachary responded as Pippin had hoped. Pippin deposed Childeric, the last Merovingian king, and sent him to a monastery for the rest of his life. In November, 751, Pippin, following traditional Germanic practice, was elected king by the Frankish nobles, and, to demonstrate the new and more powerful charisma he possessed, he was crowned and anointed by the bishops of the realm, possibly including the pope's representative Boniface. Coronation and unction were repeated in 754 by Pope Stephen, which led to the establishment of a firm alliance between Rome and the kingdom of the Franks and the grant of what is called the Donation of Pippin to the pope.
   Pippin's reign as king (751-768) was a critical time in the history of the dynasty; it was Pippin who established the foundation of Carolingian royal policy. He continued the program of reform of the church that had begun during his shared rule with Carloman. His efforts included the introduction of Roman liturgical practices to the churches in his kingdom, the reform of religious life, and the reinforcement of ties with the influential monastery of St. Denis. He also strengthened ties with Rome. The papacy and its extensive holdings were under constant threat from the Lombards, who sought to unify the Italian peninsula under their authority. Pippin received requests for aid from the pope, and therefore he undertook two invasions to protect the pope from his Lombard enemies. He also undertook the vigorous expansion of the realm and promoted the idea of sacral kingship, the idea that the king is chosen by God to rule and is God's representative on earth. Despite his many achievements, Pippin's reign is often overshadowed by that of his illustrious son, Charlemagne.
   When Pippin died in 768 he left the kingdom to his sons Carloman and Charlemagne. Tensions existed between the two brothers, and civil war nearly broke out, but Carloman's death in 771 prevented this and opened the way for the sole rule of his brother, as king until 800 and then as emperor until 814. Charlemagne's success was, in part, the result of his abilities as a warrior, and during his reign the kingdom enjoyed a dramatic expansion of its territory. This expansion began almost from the death of Carloman, when Charles began a campaign to conquer and convert the Saxons, which lasted from 772 to 804. This process saw nearly annual campaigns into Saxony, the mass execution of 4,500 Saxons at Verdun, the destruction of pagan shrines, and the deportation of large numbers of Saxons. Reviving the efforts of his father Pippin, but with far greater enthusiasm, Charles invaded Italy, defeated the Lombards, and became king of the Lombards in 774. He overcame Tassilo, the duke of Bavaria, in 787, and smashed the Avar capital, or ring, in the early 790s. His first campaign into Muslim Spain in 778 led to the disastrous attack at Roncesvalles, after which Roland and the entire rear guard were massacred, but Charlemagne returned undaunted to create the Spanish March, a militarized border region that includes territory in Spain beyond the Pyrenees.
   A successful empire-builder, Charlemagne was also an innovator in government. The county was the primary administrative governmental unit and was ruled in the king's name by local nobles called counts. The responsibilities of the counts included maintaining peace and order, implementing royal law, and dispensing justice. A new class of judicial officers (called scabini) was established to adjudicate local disputes. Special representatives of the king, the missi dominici, or messengers of the lord king, were responsible for overseeing the activities of the local officials. Two missi, a noble and a churchman, were generally sent out together to ensure the proper administration of justice, hear oaths of loyalty, and publish new laws. Moreover, Charles issued a new kind of law, the capitulary, and increased the use of writing as a tool of administration and government. The capitularies, so-called because they were arranged in chapters (capitula), addressed a broad number of issues, including administration of royal palaces, education, and religious reform. The most famous of the capitularies was the Admonitio Generalis of 789, which laid the foundation for the cultural revival known as the Carolingian Renaissance. Charles himself invited scholars from throughout Europe, including Alcuin, Theodulf of Orléans, and Paul the Deacon, to participate in his court, his reforms, and the cultural revival.
   Charlemagne was also responsible for reestablishing the imperial dignity in the former Western Empire, a restoration that occurred when Charles visited Rome to investigate an attack on Pope Leo III (r. 795-816).
   On December 25, 800, Charles attended Christmas mass, and as he rose from prayer, Leo crowned him emperor, and those in the church hailed him as emperor and augustus. Although doubts about Charlemagne's interest in the imperial title were raised by his biographer, Einhard, who declared that Charles would not have entered the church that day had he known what was to happen, many of the court scholars had already asserted Charlemagne's imperial stature in the 790s. They no doubt noted that the imperial authority was vacant in the Byzantine Empire because a woman, Irene, claimed to be emperor. Charlemagne's building program, especially the church and palace complex at Aachen, which was influenced by similar structures in the former Byzantine imperial capital in Ravenna, Italy, suggests that he was not unaware of his imperial stature. His dismay was likely over the way the imperial crown was bestowed; certainly Charles employed the title in his last years and rededicated himself to his program of renewal with a new "imperial" capitulary in 802.
   Charles first understood the title as a special honor for himself alone, but in 813 he passed on the office of emperor to his surviving son, Louis the Pious (778-840). Louis's reign was characterized by continued cultural and religious reform but also by civil war. Louis made the imperial authority the foundation of his power and thus emphasized it in ways that his father, who preserved his royal titles, had not. He also sought to maintain the empire's permanent integrity by implementing a well-thought-out succession plan in 817, shortly after a near-fatal accident. The Ordinatio Imperii, as the capitulary that laid out the succession was called, provided a place in the succession for each of Louis's sons; the younger sons, Pippin and Louis the German, were assigned authority over subkingdoms, and imperial and sovereign authority was granted to his eldest son, Lothar (795-855), who was to be associated with his father as emperor during his father's life and then become his successor as emperor. Dissatisfaction with the plan emerged almost immediately and led to the revolt of Louis's nephew, Bernard, in 817; Bernard was blinded and died in the forceful suppression of the revolt. Despite this rebellion, Louis's reign during the 810s and 820s saw important achievements, including monastic reform, which was a precursor of later monastic reform, and governmental reform that provided legal and constitutional grounds for Carolingian power in Italy.
   Despite these positive developments, Louis faced a number of crises in the late 820s and 830s. The birth of a son, Charles the Bald (823-877), to his second wife Judith, and the reorganization of the succession plan to include Charles, provided the other sons, and many nobles and bishops, reason to revolt against Louis's authority. The 830s was plagued by much turmoil in the empire, brought on by the revolts of Lothar and Pippin and Louis. In 834 Louis was deposed by Lothar, and Charles and Judith were placed in religious houses. But Louis, despite his ill-deserved reputation for weakness, regained his throne and ruled until his death in 840, when he was succeeded by Lothar, Charles, and Louis the German.
   Civil war intensified in the years after Louis's death, as his surviving sons struggled for preeminence in the empire. After several battles, including an especially bloody one at Fontenoy, the brothers agreed to the Treaty of Verdun in 843, which divided the realm between them, with Charles getting western Francia, Louis eastern Francia, and Lothar central Francia and Italy as well as the imperial title. Lothar's territory was the least defensible, a problem not only because of the threats he faced from his brothers but also because of the growing threat of Viking, Muslim, and Magyar invasions. His acceptance of the tradition of dividing the inheritance among his own sons further undermined the territorial integrity of the central kingdom. Indeed, the weaknesses of Lothar's portion were revealed in the treaty of Meerssen, 870, which divided the northern parts of Lothar's territory between his brothers Charles the Bald and Louis. Charles survived the wars of the 830s and 840s to establish a strong kingship and resurrect the dynamic court culture of his grandfather. He also assumed the imperial crown and captured Aachen before his death in 877.
   Although the kings of West Francia preserved the line the longest, until 987 when death and betrayal brought an end to the line, the power and authority of the Carolingian line underwent a process of decline beginning in the generation after the death of Charles the Bald. From the time of Louis II, the Stammerer (r. 877-879), until the time of the last Carolingian, Louis V (r. 986-987), the dynasty faced a series of great problems that eroded their power base. The west Frankish kingdom faced repeated Viking incursions, which the traditional Frankish military was unable to stop. Instead, local leaders, dukes and counts, began to exercise their authority and took steps to protect their territories from these invaders. Their ability to provide some protection offered them greater political authority, and their gradual acquisition of territory made them increasingly powerful. The civil strife of the later Carolingians also contributed to their decline, as various kings gave away significant amounts of land from the royal treasury to ensure the loyalty of the nobility. This effort accomplished little more than the gradual impoverishment of the dynasty, and by its fall in 987 it could only command a small region around Paris, where it held its last important estates.
   In East Francia, the dynasty was replaced much sooner, but it nevertheless left an important legacy to its successors and to the medieval empire. After the wars of the 840s, Louis the German continued the Carolingian line in East Francia, but he was faced with many challenges. He ruled over a diverse kingdom, comprising Bavaria, Franconia, Saxony, Swabia, and Thuringia. He was plagued by attacks from Slavs and Vikings and faced the rising power of the nobility, especially the Liudolfings, and suffered revolts from within his family, including two by his son Carloman (d. 880). His dependence on the church, especially the monasteries of his realm, was in part the result of the special problems of his kingdom. He divided the realm between his three sons, who succeeded him on his death on August, 28, 876, but it was Louis's son, Charles the Fat (r. 876-887, d. 888), who received the imperial title and, for a short time, reunited the empire.
   Despite a strong start to his reign and early success against invaders, Charles's ill health and the growing success of Viking raiders led to his deposition in 887. He was succeeded in East Francia by his brother's illegitimate son, Arnulf of Carinthia (r. 887-899), who ruled with much early success and was crowned emperor in Rome. But Arnulf too was plagued by ill health in his later years, and he was succeeded after his death by his six-year-old son, Louis the Child (r. 899-911). Louis was the last of the Carolingians to rule in East Francia. His reign was marked by destructive Magyar invasions and the deaths of powerful nobles who were critical to the defense of the realm. On the death of Louis, the nobles of East Francia elected Conrad I (r. 911-918) king. Conrad and his successors inherited a realm divided into numerous duchies and threatened by foreign invaders, but they also inherited Carolingian traditions in government and the Carolingian tradition of strong ties with the church, which laid the foundation for the restoration of the empire by Otto I in 962.
   See also
 ♦ Bachrach, Bernard. Early Carolingian Warfare: Prelude to Empire. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.
 ♦ Einhard and Notker the Stammerer. Two Lives of Charlemagne. Trans. Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1981.
 ♦ Fichtenau, Heinrich. The Carolingian Empire. Trans. Peter Munz. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979.
 ♦ Ganshof, François L. The Carolingians and the Frankish Monarchy: Studies in Carolingian History. Trans. Janet L. Sondheimer. London: Longman, 1971.
 ♦ Halphen, Louis. Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire. Trans. Giselle de Nie. Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1977.
 ♦ McKitterick, Rosamond. The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians, 751-987. London: Longman, 1983.
 ♦ Odegaard, Charles E. Vassi et Fideles in the Carolingian Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1945.
 ♦ Riché, Pierre. The Carolingians: A Family Who Forged Europe. Trans. Michael Idomir Allen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993.
 ♦ Scholz, Bernhard Walter, trans. Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard's History. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972.
 ♦ Sullivan, Richard E. "The Carolingian Age: Reflections on Its Place in the History of the Middle Ages." Speculum 64 (1989): 257-306.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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